🐣 Returning from parental leave

I’m two weeks back in at work after taking some parental leave after the birth of our second child, and wow… a lot happened in the world whilst I was out!

In total I’ve been at home for about three months. Six weeks on parental leave, four weeks at home before baby was born, and two weeks back at work now. I’m going to cover how I’ve found things since I’ve been back, some of the things I’ve learnt, and hopefully some useful tips that others in a similar position might get some value from.

I thought that this post would be about how I found returning to work after parental leave under normal circumstances, and maybe some tips on adjusting to working at home for a long stretch before that. Given that the coronavirus pandemic struck whilst I was in my parenting bubble, my experience of returning to work is very different to what I’d expected and planned for 🦠

It’s also worth calling out here that I’m writing from a position of privilege, and I’m absolutely not intending to compare my experience of returning to work with anyone else’s. I appreciate I’m lucky to have a job to return to, I haven’t had to give birth or carry a baby for the last nine months, and I have a dedicated working space at home. I appreciate these things have all helped make my return from parental leave much easier than for many others.

🏢 Business as Unusual

Business as we knew it has changed dramatically. I wrote a few things down before I went away to help give me some focus and a grasp on what my priorities would be when I went back, but everything changed in those few weeks, so very little was still relevant. The big lesson here was that I was probably too ambitious to think that those things would still be important when I got back, pandemic or no pandemic.

😔 Guilt

I’ve struggled with the guilt of ‘leaving’ my family to go back to work. Even though I’m only in the room next door, I’m not around as much to help out. I don’t think there’s much I can do about that feeling, but to help manage it I’ve tried to do a few things – eating lunch together, leaving the study door open when I’m doing interruptible work, and having the kids in with me on some calls. When things get hectic I also excuse myself briefly from work so I can help. I’ve found it particularly useful chatting to other parents at work to see how they’re coping now, and how they’ve dealt with the guilt of returning to work in the past which has been really useful. It’s reassuring to know I’ve got support from others if I need it, and that helps enormously.

🤗 Be kind to yourself

One helpful thing I did write down before I went on leave was this:

I can put a lot of pressure on myself sometimes to be on top of everything, all of the time. I knew I’d come back to work and feel like I’d need to know everything immediately, so I coached myself through this by asking the question ‘what would you say to somebody you manage who was just coming back from parental leave?’. I wrote my answer down in a place I knew I’d see it regularly, and I’m glad I did 😁

Remember to be kind to yourself and give yourself the time you need to adjust – nobody is expecting you to come back as if nothing has changed.

💡 Practical tips

It’s been a learning process, and some things have helped more than others. Here are some of the things that have made settling back in easier for me so far:

👉 Set expectations

Set clear expectations with yourself and your family, and then with your team and your manager about what you will and won’t be able to do whilst you’re readjusting to working life. As an example, I shared this with my team on my first day back:

Restarting your brain and adjusting to start thinking about things that aren’t solely related to looking after children can take time, so set that expectation and let others know what you need from them to help you.

📅 Organise your schedule

As I mentioned in my message to my team above, one of the first things I did was clear my diary out. I prioritised the meetings I’d need to be in and spread my 1:1s out more – previously many of my 1:1s were scheduled for when we’d both be in the office, but I had the opportunity to split these up now many more people are trying to work whilst at home in lockdown.

I also built plenty of slack time into my calendar for reading, catching up with everyone I manage, and general time where I’m able to get away from my desk and recharge. This was probably the most impactful thing I did on my first day to make me feel like I was in control of how I’d be spending my time, and to make sure I was getting the time I needed to look after myself and help out at home.

🗣 Speak to your manager and your peers

Be up front with your manager and your peers about how you’re feeling, if you’re comfortable to. Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive manager who was upfront and realistic with me on their expectations, without me needing to bring the topic up. If you’re a manager and someone you manage is coming back from parental leave (regardless of how long they’ve been away for), set some expectations with them and let them know it’s ok if it might take a bit of time for everyone to adjust. Knowing that your boss is there for you makes you feel so much better.

🔴 Don’t break your own rules

I set some rules out early:

  • I’ll aim to work 08:00-16:30ish
  • I’ll stop for lunch and spend that time with my family
  • When I’ve finished working, I’ll close my laptop and not revisit until tomorrow

In my first week I managed to mostly stick to these and felt good about things – the balance was ok, and I’d created good separation between ‘home’ and ‘work’. 

This week, I let things go and I don’t feel good about it. I’ve worked way past 16:30 a couple of nights, I’ve gone back in to my study later in the night once I’ve said I’d sign off, and I didn’t stop for lunch every day. These are rules that I’ve set out for myself that mean I’d be able to help more at home, make sure I’ve got time for exercise, and get the rest I need to be effective at my job. By not following them I’m impacting the things that I’ve said are important to me. Don’t break your own rules!

Hopefully there are a few takeaways in there that might help parents who are returning to work, and for any managers who are trying to support them too. It’s also important to note that things aren’t normal at the moment – the world has changed a lot recently, and ‘normal’ feels like a distant reality. Take the time you need to adjust to things, be kind to yourself, and confide in the people you trust the most.